Monday, September 13, 2010

The Meanest MoCo Primary of All Time, Part One

Montgomery County’s political community is much more diverse than it appears to be from the outside. While nearly all political players here are Democrats, they often disagree on issues of development, budget, transportation and the appropriate pace of change. But one thing almost every one of them will say today is that this election has been the Meanest MoCo Primary of All Time.

We do not come to that conclusion lightly. MoCo has a long history of negative campaigning. The two traditional tools of political slime here have been the whisper campaign and, much less frequently, the mail.

MoCo is a large county but its local political community is relatively small – perhaps numbering only a few hundred people. That makes our jurisdiction ideally suited for whisper campaigns alleging all manner of sleaze and smut. If we believed every whisper we have heard, we would think that the state and county governments are populated exclusively by perverts, drunks, crooks, racists, floozies and (gasp!) closet Republicans. OK, maybe there is a small bit of truth in this, but we will not be naming names since some of these people are great anonymous sources. The virtue of whisper campaigns is that they do not need authority lines. But few of them break through to the mass media and most of them remain the Chardonnay gossip of insiders.

Candidates who have wanted to elevate their charges to the attention of the general public have occasionally gone into the mail. Most negative MoCo mailers are actually contrast pieces, which tout positive things about one candidate and bad things about that person’s rival. Here’s an example from 2002 in which Council Member Phil Andrews took on his challenger, Rockville City Council Member Bob Dorsey.

Most purely negative mailers in MoCo have been issue-based and not character-based. Here’s a 2002 mailer from the End Gridlock slate going after then-Council Member Blair Ewing for opposing the ICC.

The End Gridlock slate’s approach was logical. According to them, the ICC was necessary. Blair Ewing opposed it. So Ewing had to go. This says nothing about Ewing’s character, only that he was wrong on an issue.

Prior to this year, direct character attacks in MoCo campaigns have been uncommon. Two instances stand out.

1. Delegate Dana Dembrow (D-20)

Sharp-elbowed Delegate Dana Dembrow had been feuding bitterly with the rest of his delegation, Senator Ida Ruben and Delegates Sheila Hixson and Peter Franchot, for years. In 2002, Ruben and her allies tried to get him redistricted out, to no avail. But then Dembrow was charged with hitting his wife and all hell broke loose. The rest of his delegation endorsed Delegate challenger Gareth Murray and a wave of anti-Dembrow flyers discussing the domestic violence rushed through the district. Dembrow lost by 524 votes to Murray. After the election, the two PACs that funded the mailers were revealed to have received thousands of dollars from Ruben, Franchot, Hixson and Murray.

Dembrow was later hired by Governor Bob Ehrlich and fired a year later. In 2006, Ruben and Murray were defeated and Franchot was elected Comptroller, leaving Hixson as the sole survivor.

2. The County Council Can Can

In 2002, Neighbors for a Better Montgomery (Neighborspac) formed to oppose Doug Duncan’s End Gridlock County Council slate. End Gridlock swept the at-large election that year, but Neighborspac returned with guns blazing four years later. The group supplemented its traditional activity of tallying campaign finance data with this video of the End Gridlock Council Members, which it posted on its website.

Campaign contributions are always fair game for negative messaging. But this video went further with its depiction of five Council Members as marionettes dancing on a developer’s strings. (Its demented nature made it even more effective.) Two of the marionettes were defeated – one because he ran against Ike Leggett for Executive – and three survived. The video lives on in MoCo infamy.

The anti-Dembrow campaign and the Can Can stand out in county history because they were a bit unusual for their time. They would fit right in this year. 2010 has seen a large number of contested one-on-one primaries between candidates who do not like each other. It is also occurring in the context of a great number of technological platforms for delivering negative messages, like blogs, Facebook, email and attack sites, that did not exist or could not have been effective in the past. But what will truly be remembered about 2010 is the rip-roaring nastiness with which this year’s stinking mud has been sprayed. We’ll reminisce about the worst of the worst tomorrow.